The first thing we noticed about Athens Grill during a recent Saturday visit was the number of families with energetic young kids. They literally filled the large, open dining room, giving it the feel of a loud, upscale cafeteria.
As day transitioned to evening, the families filtered out and were replaced by hungry diners of more advanced ages. Still, the place remained close to a full house.
What’s the attraction? Part of it seems to be an emphasis on fun. The bartenders and serving staff all are friendly and extremely upbeat—almost to a fault.
But a bigger draw is Athens Grill’s menu and kitchen. The tight menu consists of a few Greek and Mediterranean recipes—gyros and eggplant sandwiches—along with burgers, salads and sides such as homemade mac and cheese.
The kitchen prepares the food very well. Prices are low, and servings are generous. The place also has a strong selection of craft beers on tap and by the bottle.
The restaurant opened in December 2017 after owner Andy Ziegler expanded Athens Gyros, which had operated out of a Shell gas station on County M near Highway 113, north of Lake Mendota in the town of Westport. He simply shifted the operation from the gas station to a new 7,000-square-foot building next door.
The location is not far from Warner Park on Madison’s north side, home of the Madison Mallards baseball team. Game days are always fun and busy times at the restaurant, Ziegler said.
Ziegler grew up in Middleton in a family of Greek ancestry. He worked in kitchens in Europe and in several upscale Madison restaurants before deciding to go into business for himself.
The gyros ($8) at Athens Grill are classic: Overflowing with spicy lamb and beef along with the traditional tomato, onion and tzatziki on grilled pita. The gyros plate ($12) basically doubles the size of your order and includes fries.
A friend loved what he described as a “delicious” eggplant sandwich ($8), with slices of grilled eggplant and “giardiniera-hummus,” charred red onions, greens, feta, yogurt-tahini and roasted pine nuts on a grilled pita. It’s a lot of ingredients and preparation for the price.
The kitchen turns out two varieties of mac and cheese, both remarkably flavorful and filling. The regular features spiral pasta with Carr Valley cheddar and Gouda cheese, spicy breadcrumbs and roasted tomato ($8). An amped up version—the loaded mac and cheese—includes the same ingredients along with grilled chicken and bacon for an additional $4.
The quality remains high with a Mediterranean grain salad ($8), which combines bulgur and roast squash with kale, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds and pickled golden raisins, all dressed in red-wine vinaigrette.
The Athens salad ($6) is also a winner: romaine with feta, red onion, pepperoncini, mint, kalamata olives and lemon vinaigrette. It is served in a large portion and can be even larger with the addition of lamb, beef or eggplant for another $3.
I would certainly recommend the restaurant’s thick and flavorful chicken-lemon soup ($6), especially at this time of year. It features lots of rotisserie chicken, complemented with rice, yogurt, grilled lemon and dill.
Athens Grill also offers three char-grilled burgers, one of which gets the Mediterranean treatment: a beef patty grilled medium-rare with gyro meat, feta cheese, onion, pickles and tzatziki sauce on a sesame seed bun.
Sides include Athens fries (with tzatziki, feta and fresh herbs), cheese curds and nachos. There is also a children’s menu offering kid-sized burgers, gyros, chicken tenders, and mac and cheese.
For dessert, be sure to check out the baklava ($3), which is phyllo pastry with walnuts and honey syrup.
Ziegler also is big on special events to draw customers and create atmosphere. On the day of our visit, it was a “tap takeover,” in which a different brewery each month offers beer and food specials, usually along with something such as a ping pong tournament.
Athens Grill doesn’t offer a wide variety of food, but in our experience, what’s on the menu is very well done. Combine tasty food with good prices and a friendly staff, and what’s not to like?
The only drawbacks might be the restaurant’s location—it feels remote to someone who is not familiar with the area—and its noise level. But if you’re looking for good food and a good time (with or without kids), I’d recommend this place almost any time.